Remembering theY2K, thinking about covid-19

Twenty years ago, just before the turn of the millennium, my husband, a physicist by training who has, as I’ve vaguely explained it, “done computers” for most of his career, was one of the medium-sized army of technology types working on what was called the Y2K bug.

The bug was a huge problem caused by the human inability to think ahead properly — we all assume that the future will be entirely and either glamorously or dystopically but in either case radically different than it is now, but we also somehow assume that it will be exactly the same as it is now, too. That none of the rules would have changed. (Or as the late John Prine, another brilliant victim of the relentless coronavirus, put it, “We’re living in the future/Tell you how I know/I read it in the paper/Fifteen years ago.”)

The Y2K bug was the part of all computer codes, which had been developed over the last almost half century, if you go way back to its beginnings, that assumed that there would be no century beyond the 20th, and so no years that would begin with anything other than a 1. That is of course an oversimplification. No one actually thought that the world would end before the millennium turned. But it seemed as if it were a very long time away, and then everyone sort of forgot about it. Until they remembered, and panicked.

They realized that if this glitch were left unrepaired, everything dependent on computers — basically everything, and there was an internet by then too — would fail. Air traffic control, electrical grids, hospital equipment — everything.

So these medium-sized armies went to work. It was unglamorous work, fixing code, line by line; my limited understanding tells me that there was no overall fix, just mind-numbingly boring plodding.

But it was done. And the calendar changed from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000. Many computer science types spent that night by their phones and computers, waiting for trouble.

And nothing happened.

That, course, was the desired result. Nothing was supposed to happen, because everything that could have happened would have been bad.

The response from the public was not gratitude, as might have been expected in a perfect world. Not even almost. It was as if a huge wet raspberry came out from the pursed lips of just about everyone.

What stupid jerks all those computer types, those scientist nerds, were, they all said. How dumb of them. They just wanted to scare us. Nothing was wrong. Nothing happened. Don’t they look like fools?

The irony is that the hard work that goes into making something work well or look easy means that the hard work is hidden. The harder the work, sometimes the harder it is to see the effort.

That brings me to our lockdown.

Yes, the disease and death rates are down. That is a wonderful thing. Far too many people have died already, and far too many have fought debilitating illness.

The whole point of staying inside, of giving up public meetings, of living in this strange, lonely way, is to flatten the curve. It’s to stop this from happening. It’s to ensure that fewer people get sick and fewer people die.

The idea of taking the fact that the disease and death rates are going down as proving that the entire threat was overblown is both illogical and ridiculous. The most logical way to prove the reality of the threat is to lift the restrictions and then watch as people sicken and die, but it’s certainly the worst way.

What we are doing is working. We have to allow it to continue to work. It will be extraordinarily difficult for living people to bring the economy back to life, but it’s even harder for dead people to do it.

Early in the pandemic, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the organization of local Orthodox rabbis, suggested (or perhaps even demanded) that the members of its rabbis’ congregations stay home, give up shul, give up minyanim, give up sedarim, give up just about everything. The statement was forceful and prescient and brave.

This week, the RCBC forcefully repeated that suggestion.

When I interviewed some of the rabbis, they said that science matters. Here, they make that statement again.

The RCBC statement says: “The physicians with whom we consult attribute this positive trajectory to our strict adherence to social distancing over the past number of weeks. However, they warn that it is too early to stop, as prematurely relaxing our guard can easily cause another dangerous spike. We must follow the guidance of our government and of the medical leadership at our local hospitals. Right now they are conveying consistent messages of caution. (If there was to be a discrepancy between these two voices, we believe that the halacha mandates that we follow the stricter of the two approaches.)”

We are grateful to the RCBC for this statement. We know how difficult it is to follow this advice, but we also know how necessary it is.

Please, everyone, stay safe and stay sane.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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